Sunday, May 7, 2023

The Wind Bloweth Where It Listeth

Charles Portis (1933–2020)
From Charles Portis: Collected Works

“Chimpanzee at typewriter. New York Zoological Park.” Postcard printed by American Colortype Co., 1907. Courtesy Digital Culture of Metropolitan New York.
“In 1964, in the midst of so-called Swinging London, Charles McColl Portis had Karl Marx’s old job,” begins editor Ed Park in his appreciation of the author. The previous November, shortly after Sir Alec Douglas-Home became prime minister and weeks before President Kennedy was assassinated, Portis became head of the London bureau of the New York Herald Tribune. Four decades later, in 2001, he joked during an interview about how “Marx was the London correspondent for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune in the 1850s. Dick Wald was my New York boss, and I told him once that the Tribune might have saved us all a lot of grief if it had only paid Marx a little better. Dick didn’t take the hint.”

After a year in London, Portis surprised everyone in the business. Tom Wolfe, one of his colleagues in the Herald Tribune’s New York office, later recalled:
One day he suddenly quit as London correspondent for the Herald Tribune. That was generally regarded as a very choice job in the newspaper business. Portis quit cold one day; just like that, without a warning. He returned to the United States and moved into a fishing shack in Arkansas. In six months he wrote a beautiful little novel called Norwood. Then he wrote True Grit, which was a best seller. The reviews were terrific . . . He sold both books to the movies . . . He made a fortune . . . A fishing shack! In Arkansas! It was too goddamned perfect to be true, and yet there it was.
“At this late date,” Wolfe wrote, “it’s hard to explain what an American dream the idea of writing a novel was in the 1940s, the 1950s, and right into the early 1960s. The Novel was no mere literary form. It was a psychological phenomenon. It was a cortical fever.” Many a feature writer dreamed of one day becoming a fiction writer; “by the 1950s The Novel had become a nationwide tournament.”

Portis himself never fully explained why he up and quit his “choice job.” In 2013, when the essayist Aaron Gilbreath tried to get a definitive response from the author, Portis sent him a note with a single sentence: ‘‘I simply wanted to try my hand at fiction, and if it hadn’t worked out I would have gone back to journalism.’’ Yet he occasionally hinted at a mild, self-deprecating disdain for newspaper work, beginning with how he entered the field in college. “You had to choose a major, so I put down journalism,” he said during the interview in 2001. “I must have thought it would be fun and not very hard, something like barber college. Not to offend the barbers. They probably provide a more useful service.” He also suggested that the standards of newspaper editing tended to bleach the color out of writing, as he learned when he worked the copy desk at the Northwest Arkansas Times:
I edited the country correspondence from these lady stringers in Goshen and Elkins, those places. I had to type it up. . . . My job was to edit out all the life and charm from these homely reports. Some fine old country expression, or a nice turn of phrase—out they went. We probably thought we were doing the readers a favor.
For whatever reason, Portis left the newspaper industry and gave the world five novels entirely unlike the fiction by any of the journalists who preceded or followed him, including Ernest Hemingway, Ann Petry, John Hersey, Jimmy Breslin, Nora Ephron, and Tom Wolfe. (Like Wolfe, Breslin worked alongside Portis at the Herald Tribune, Ephron at Newsweek.) In a tribute written for The Paris Review the year after Portis died, Rosa Lyster described this literary distinctiveness, how “reading him for the first time required a significant adjustment to all my previously gathered knowledge of what a person can or should put in a novel if they want it to be good. He is unbeatable at the non sequitur, so that every paragraph contains the possibility of crazed escalation.”

Portis also excels in the creation of zany and unconventional minor characters, including such animals as Tommy the harmonica-playing fox terrier and “Joann the Wonder Hen, the College Educated Chicken,” both in Norwood; Squanto the talking blue jay in Master of Atlantis; and Ramos, “son of the late Chino, bravest dog in all Mexico,” in Gringos. So it should come as no surprise that Portis’s last published work features Red Kilgore the mandrill, one of hundreds of monkeys pecking away at electric typewriters in a billionaire-funded project that generates volumes of mass-produced text to supersede the “old elitist notion of writing as some sort of algebra.” One could say it was Portis’s last word on the ever-changing field of journalism.

Notes: The title of the story is from John 3:8: “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.” The infinite monkey theorem, which metaphorically posits that a monkey hitting keys at random for an infinite amount of time will eventually type any given text, was enunciated by French mathematician Émile Borel in 1913 and popularized by, among others, physicist Arthur Eddington in 1928. American bandmaster and composer John Philip Sousa, whose compositions include the march “Stars and Stripes Forever” (1896), was known as “The March King.”

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The editors are spiking most of my copy now, unread. One has described it as “hopeless crap.” My master’s degree means nothing to this pack of half-wits at the Blade. My job is hanging by a thread. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

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